DCA Report: Users Demand Some Accountability For Platforms

On December 31, 2016, in a post called The Morning After or Social Media is a Humbug, I wondered whether or not 2017 would be the year when users, advertisers, and even the major web platforms would begin to demand more accountability online and move away from the general belief that a laissez-faire approach to all internet governance was universally beneficial.

After the election, many citizens woke up to the reality of fake news and consequently reaffirmed some faith in traditional journalism with an immediate spike in subscriptions. In March, we saw major brand advertisers threaten to boycott Google if the search and ad giant did not figure out how to keep brand ads away from toxic content like terrorist propaganda videos.  And this morning, Digital Citizens Alliance released a new report, Trouble in Our Digital Midst, indicating that a majority of Americans may be losing trust in the internet as a source of reliable information and as a secure environment.

Building on past studies, like the overall proliferation of malware on pirate sites and trojan horse viruses used to prey on minors, DCA’s 2017 poll comprising 1,240 respondents indicates that approximately 60% of Americans currently favor the web companies taking more responsibility for the manner in which their platforms are used.  Just a few years ago, it seemed that people largely accepted the premise that online platforms should remain neutral on the assumption that it was better to allow a few bad actors to slip through the net than to risk “stifling the speech” of innocent parties. But as the potential toxicity of fake news, malware scams, terrorist propaganda, and major online hacks have become more common and high-profile, that mood appears to be shifting.

In addition to sharing its findings, the DCA compliments major players like Google and Facebook for at least altering their standard response to the ills of bad actors …

“… digital platforms over the last year have shown a new willingness to intervene, impact, or even alter the content on their platforms on issues of national importance. Given that they have opened the door, they must take a fresh and holistic look at all illicit goods, services, content, and behavior on their platforms. The response, ‘we’re just a platform,’ clearly is not the answer in response to the Fake News problem and objectionable content that has brand name advertising imprinted upon it, and it shouldn’t be the answer when it comes to stolen credit cards, counterfeit goods, illicit drugs or pirated movies, TV shows and music, or the violation of our young.” 

This new report notes that 2017 was the first time the Federal Trade Commission issued a consumer warning about the increased likelihood that visiting pirate sites will expose users to malware attacks, leaving them vulnerable to ransom demands, identity theft, and computer slaving that preys on kids by exploiting their webcams and microphones. DCA also reminds readers of the 2015 research by RiskIQ, which found that on the dark web, where hackers pay pirate site owners to distribute malware, that business was over $70 million year at the time of the study.  “Take a moment to think about that – if hackers are paying content theft websites $70 million to drop malware on their sites that infect visitor computers, how much are they making?” asks the report.

DCA proposes what it calls a “neighborhood watch” approach to address these growing problems with a new mindset.  Primarily, this would involve the major platforms doing a better job of sharing information with one another regarding bad actors the same way retailers and other industry competitors do for the overall health of their markets. “While digital platforms collaborate on policy and technical issues, there is no evidence that they are sharing information about the bad actors themselves. That enables criminals and bad actors to move seamlessly from platform to platform,” the report states.

I’m not surprised to see Google and Facebook change their tune at least a little bit this year.  The threat of boycott by the advertisers who pay the bills was sure to get a response; as would the prospect of shedding users who may become disenchanted with Facebook if it were overwhelmed by fake news, trolls, and a psychos who share live video of murder.   The DCA acknowledges the fact that it is a major challenge to weed out hackers, counterfeiters, pirates, and violent extremists from using the internet as a base of operations without harming the free-flow of interaction for the rest of us.  Still, it is at least a step in the right direction if users are indeed beginning to understand that no community–perhaps least of all a virtual one–thrives without reasonable boundaries to protect safety and fair trade.

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